Monthly Archives: April 2020

What is the cost of contaminated soils due to extractive activities?

It is estimated that the soils of approximately 2.5 million sites in the European Union are potentially contaminated and at least 14% of them require soil decontamination as a result of mining, industrial and urban activities. At the moment, only a small part of these sites have been remediated, leaving about 300,000 contaminated sites in need of remediation in the EU.

Although mining activities are important sources of soil contamination in some EU countries, metal industries are the most frequently reported to be important sources of contamination (representing 13% of total contaminated soils). Most frequent contaminants are mineral oils and heavy metals.

Contaminated sites don’t come without cost, both for the private sector and for public administrations. Clean-up of contaminated soils is a cost-intensive and technically complex procedure. According to data from the Superfund programme, US spends between 300 and 700$ million annually in soils remediation. In the EU, it is estimated that an average of 1€ per million euros of national GDP are spent on the management and remediation of contaminated sites, most of it coming from public budgets.

Directive 2006/21/EC regulates in the EU the management of waste from extractive industries in order to control major-accident hazards and to enable the production of the best available techniques (BAT) to manage mine sites whenever they are depleted, degraded or abandoned. This regulation calls for rehabilitation of these degraded areas, understanding rehabilitation as the proper treatment of the land affected in such a way as to restore the land to a satisfactory state, with particular regard to soil quality, wildlife, natural habitats, freshwater systems, landscape and appropriate beneficial uses.

The EU Directive affects an estimated area of 40,100 km2, corresponding to land currently impacted by active mining. If compared with other continental areas, contaminated soils in Europe are well below other regions, which may reflect the high degree of regulation and monitoring of mining operations in the EU and the general trend of reducing mining activities over the past decades.

Globally, the extent of land area impacted by mining and quarrying is debated, but recent estimates range between 300,000 and 800,000 km2. It’s a fact that mining is expanding in response to increasing societal demands for energy minerals, metals, and other construction and industrial minerals. Since the 1970s, extraction of metals has increased by more than 75%, non-metallic industrial minerals by 53% and construction materials by 106%. The main challenge ahead will be to resolve the inherent conflict between the growing impacts of increased demand for mineral resources essential for the energy transition and the need to protect and restore environmental goods and services.

Understanding the economics of contaminated land management is key to increase awareness and promote sustainable solutions. Annually, the loss of ecosystem services due to land degradation represents a reduction of 10-17% of global GDP. The stabilisation and restoration of contaminated soils typically require long-term efforts focused not only on local site conditions but also on adjacent waste-disposal sites, neighbouring areas affected by water pollution, distant areas affected by dust emissions and infrastructure (e.g. roads and railways).

Current EU initiatives for the development of new technologies and methods aim at removing or neutralising contaminants from the site so that the land can begin a non-mining, non-industrial activity while keeping alive the local economy and enhancing social acceptance and sustainability. In next posts, we will dig deeper into these remediation techniques.

Header image: Map of active metal and energy minerals mining sites. Source: SNL Metals & Mining Database, 2017.


The Rector of the University of Oviedo, Santiago García Granda, and the general director of ICAMCyL Foundation, Santiago Cuesta López, have signed a cooperation agreement with the aim of promoting research and the generation of scientific and technological knowledge in the fields of advanced materials, raw materials, nanotechnology, mining, processing technologies and the circular economy.

ICAMCyL will contribute to this agreement by promoting their main lines of work, namely, sustainable mining, advanced materials and nanomaterials, priority lines also for the University of Oviedo and aligned with the work of research groups adhering to the Cluster of Energy, Environment and Climate Change of this University.

ICAMCyL being a member of the European Smart Specialization Platform (S3P) on Mining Industry, Related Industries and Services and Global Value Chains will also be key in this collaboration. This platform, coordinated by the Finnish regions of Lapland and North Karelia together with Castilla y León in Spain, has the main objective of spreading the knowledge of expert organisations to support regional growth and new business and work opportunities, and to create also a solid European collaboration among the regions involved in this initiative.

ICAMCyL is also involved in different projects and initiatives at regional and European level aimed at recovering raw materials from inactive mine tailings for reuse as a source of secondary raw materials.

On the other hand, the University of Oviedo is part as a collaborating entity of the Iberian Sustainable Mining Cluster (ISMC), managed by ICAMCyL Foundation. Within this cluster, which has now more than 60 members among large companies, SMEs, associations, technology centres and universities, both organizations contribute to promoting sustainable growth of the mining sector, creating new businesses and job opportunities and coordinate efforts to achieve a new strategic and sustainable mining in Europe.

Through this agreement, which will remain active for four years, both institutions commit themselves to promote joint research, optimize their material and human resources, and collaborate in the completion of Final Degree Projects, Master’s Final Projects and Doctoral Theses for graduate and postgraduate students. They will also participate in different events and activities such as conferences, seminars or exhibitions in which their mutual interests converge.

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